Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Justices Toss Suit Against Officers Who Shot Mentally Ill Woman
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that police have qualified immunity from a lawsuit arising from the arrest and shooting of a mentally ill woman in San Francisco.
A Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled last year that police must take special precautions when dealing with mentally ill suspects, based on the Fourth Amendment and the reasonable accommodations requirement of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide both the ADA and constitutional issues. But it dismissed the grant as to the ADA claim, which is against the city alone, and remanded, saying the argument the city made before the high court—that the plaintiff wasn’t “qualified” for an accommodation—differed from its argument in the lower courts that the ADA does not apply to police in their dealings with dangerous suspects.
As for the Fourth Amendment claim, the court declined to rule on whether the Constitution requires the police to take any special measures when dealing with mentally ill suspects. But even if there is such a requirement, Justice Samuel Alito wrote the court, it was not “clearly established” at the time of the 2008 incident.
Alito was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for himself and Justice Elena Kagan, argued that the city had was using a “bait-and-switch” tactic, that the court would likely not have granted certiorari on the constitutional issue alone, and that certiorari should therefore be dismissed on the constitutional issue as well.
Justice Stephen Breyer recused himself. His brother, Judge Charles Breyer, heard the case in the district court.
The case involved a 2008 incident in which a social worker, Heath Hodge, attempted to make a welfare check on Teresa Sheehan at her private room in the Conrad House, a group home for the mentally ill. He explained that he entered her room without Sheehan’s permission, and that she told him to get out and that she would kill him with a knife.
Hodge called the San Francisco Police Department’s nonemergency number, requesting assistance in transporting Sheehan to a mental health facility for a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation under California Welfare & Institutions Code §5150.
Police officers Katherine Holder and Kimberly Reynolds responded to the call that a patient “known to make violent threats, told reporting party to get out or she’ll knife him (no weapon seen).” Hodge told the police, upon their arrival, that Sheehan had been off her medications, and that she had threatened to kill him.
The officers went to Sheehan’s room, announced that they were police officers, and then opened the door with a key. Reynolds said that Sheehan then rose up, grabbed a knife, and walked towards the officers in a threatening manner, saying that she was going to kill them.
Sheehan conceded that she held a knife and threatened the officers.
The police retreated from Sheehan’s room, closing the door, and called for backup. Before backup arrived, however, the officers forcibly reentered Sheehan’s room.
“[A]s soon as that door was closed, the threat became more scary for us and more uncertainty [sic] about what we were dealing with.”
As Holder attempted to regain entry, Reynolds stood behind her with pepper spray and service weapon drawn. Both parties disputed the events that followed.
The police testified that Sheehan emerged from the room brandishing a knife and advanced towards them, so she was pepper sprayed without effect, and upon continuous advancement, both officers fired their weapons, hitting Sheehan five or six times.
Sheehan contented that she came out of the room with the knife “upraised,” and took one step towards the officers when she was pepper sprayed. She said she was blinded, and began screaming, before falling against the wall, when she was shot.
Sheehan was tried for two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, and two counts of assaulting a police officer with a deadly weapon, but the jury deadlocked, and prosecutors elected to not retry her.
Alito agreed with the Ninth Circuit panel that police did not violate the Fourth Amendment by initially conducting a warrantless entry under the emergency aid or exigent circumstances exceptions.
But whereas the Ninth Circuit said there was a triable issue as to whether the officers acted reasonably by forcing a second entry into her room without taking account of her mental illness, and provoking a near-fatal confrontation, Alito cautioned that the issue was inadequately briefed, limiting the court to deciding the qualified immunity issue on the basis of whether the right was clearly established.
It wasn’t, Alito said, because “competent officers could have believed that the second entry was justified under both continuous search and exigent circumstance rationales.” Even if the officers used “bad tactics,” the justice said, that would not be enough to hold them liable for a constitutional violation.
Copyright 2015, Metropolitan News Company